Can Europe Make It?

Enter Serbia's ‘Orbán’? Aleksandar Vučić and his catch-all politics

Why the right-wing Serbian President's appointment of an openly gay woman to the position of Prime Minister is not as incongruous as it appears.

Vassilis Petsinis
28 June 2017

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic - a canny political maneuverer? Wikimedia. PD.

On 26 May 2017, the local court in the western Serbian town of Valjevo restituted the historical memory (Serbian: rehabilitacija) of Second World War Chetnik military commander, Nikola Kalabić.

Although this story was not disseminated much further beyond the national and regional media, it still generated controversy and puzzled Serbian society. On 15 June, in a story which captivated the attention of international media and press, Ana Brnabić, a self-declared lesbian, was nominated by President Aleksandar Vučić for the post of Prime Minister.

This is the first time that a person of this sexual orientation has been appointed to such a high political post in a southeast European country. Would it be possible to interconnect these two stories and clarify this ’discrepancy’? Does this apparent contrast tell us something about the current state of political affairs in Serbia?

From Kalabić’s rehabilitacija to the appointment of the new PM

During the Second World War, Nikola Kalabić (1906-1946) was High Commander of the Chetnik ‘Mountain Guard’ (Serbian: Gorska Garda). Under the leadership of Dragoljub ‘Draža’ Mihailović, the royalist Chetnik resistance movement (also known as the ‘Yugoslav Army in the Homeland’) drew predominantly Serbian support and, until 1943, enjoyed the backing of Britain.

Throughout the Communist era, the official Yugoslav historiography charged Chetniks of white terror and relegated the movement to the status of a Nazi-collaborationist force, almost equivalent to the Ustaše in neighbouring Croatia. Kalabić and his ‘Mountain Guard’, in particular, had been accused of perpetrating large-scale atrocities across central Serbia (i.e. Kosmaj, Smederevo and Aranđelovac) and concluding an official collaboration pact (German: Waffenruhe-Verträge) with the Axis in November 1943.

Since the 1990s, certain representatives of the Serbian intelligentsia and right-wing politicians, as diverse as Vuk Drašković and Vojislav Sešelj, initiated various processes for the historical restitution of the Chetnik movement. Furthermore, a series of Chetnik-themed festivities, with the annual gathering in Ravna Gora (the Chetnik hearth) as their peak, have been taking place throughout the country.

On this occasion, the formal petition for the restitution of Nikola Kalabić’s historical memory was submitted by his granddaughter, and Valjevo native, Vesna Dragojević-Kalabić. Assisted by the state’s committee for the investigation of crimes committed under Axis occupation, high judge Dragan Obradović approved the appeal.

Although President Vučić granted his assent to the verdict, this decision caused an upheaval and generated wide discontent across the centre-left/left angle of the party spectrum (i.e. the Movement of Socialists-PS, the Socialist Democrat Party of Serbia-SPS and the League of Vojvodina’s Social Democrats-LSV). Certain among the government’s critics have spread rumours that this verdict may even be a prelude for the prospective restitution of Milan Nedić, leader of Serbia’s quisling government during the Second World War. Meanwhile, Serbian society remains polarized over the court’s decision.

Roughly a couple of weeks later, a non-party technocrat and University of Hull graduate, Ana Brnabić was nominated for the seat of Serbia’s PM. President Aleksandar Vučić justified his choice on the basis of meritocracy and described his nominee as a ‘young and hardworking politician with individual and professional qualities’.

In all of this, however, the international media and press put an almost disproportional weight on Brnabić’s identity as an openly gay woman. Although safeguarded by the state legislation against discrimination and placed under the auspices of the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, LGBT rights have long formed a contested sphere in Serbia’s legal as well as public discourse. In 2001, the first Belgrade Pride parade was violently disrupted by nationalist counter-protesters who were joined by Red Star and FK Partizan football hooligans.

Quite a few journalistic accounts hinted at cultural essentialism and rushed to interpret this opposition to LGBT rights in Serbia as the persistence of a highly idiosyncratic Balkan machismo. Nevertheless, a comparative and more diligent outlook can demonstrate that a series of political, as well as extra-parliamentary, actors have basically incorporated their objections to LGBT rights into their cultural Euroscepticism as it has also been the case in other post-Communist polities (e.g. the Baltic States, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland).

How can one put into context and make sense of these two, qualitatively conflicting, developments within such a short period of time? The answer lies in the current state of affairs in Serbian politics as well as Serbia’s ’Balkan’ doctrine of foreign policy.

Aleksandar Vučić and his SNS as the preponderant political actors in Serbia

During Tomislav Nikolić’s tenure in office as party-chairman, the reformation process of the old Serbian Radical Party-SRS into the centre-right Serbian Progressive Party-SNS brought about the marginalization of the ’new’ SRS. Further along the right angle of the spectrum, the latest decision of the Democratic Party of Serbia-DSS to form a coalition with the more nationalistic Dveri did not enhance this party’s political weight.

Meanwhile, following Boris Tadić’s tenure in office as President of the Republic (2004-2012), Serbia’s centrist/liberal forces (e.g. the Democratic Party-DS) have been continuously shrinking as result of their inability to project a convincing political alternative to the electorate. As a direct consequence of these realignments on the macro-level, the SNS has consolidated its status as a predominant actor within a political continuum that ranges from the boundaries of the liberal centre all the way to the conservative right.

Most recently, following the 2017 presidential elections, fears that Aleksandar Vučić may take advantage of his status in order to evolve into a ‘Serbian Orbán’ spurred a string of youth protests in Belgrade and other major urban centres. By contrast to the Hungarian Premier, instead of making a more emphatic and authoritarian turn towards the right, Vučić seems keener on taking advantage of: (a) a high degree of informality in policymaking; (b) plenty of room for tactical and situationally adaptive maneuvering.

In this light, the absence of formidable contenders along the political spectrum has ostensibly facilitated Aleksandar Vučić and the ruling SNS to proceed into various acts of ‘political juggling’ with the objective to placate a heterogeneous array of interest groups that stretch from the centrist/liberal all the way to the more nationalistic/conservative forces of the party system.

This, in turn, can help comprehend the apparent oscillation between decisions as contrasting as the historical restitution of controversial figures from the Second World War and the subsequent appointment of a lesbian candidate to the seat of the PM.

Serbia’s ‘Balkan’ doctrine of foreign policy

During his tenure in office as the Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić (2012-2017) concretized the doctrine of ‘Balkan’ foreign policy. Without actually freezing Serbia’s accession process to the EU, this notion addresses a foreign policy of equal distance from Euro-Atlantic institutions and other global partners (mainly Russia).

At a first instance, this pattern of policymaking was prompted by the occasional friction with Brussels and powerful western governments (e.g. Germany) over Kosovo and other crucial issues in regional geopolitics. Especially in light of the economic and the refugee crises, this concept currently resonates with the declining appeal of the prospective EU-membership among the Serbian public.

From this perspective, the appointment of Ana Brnabić as the new PM may also help Vučić provide, if only subtly, a symbolic gesture towards Brussels in regards to the Serbian government’s alleged commitment to the EU system of values and, by extension, the EU-accession process.

At this point, one may recall adjacent Albania’s pledge to legalize same-sex unions and its warm reception among policymaking circles in Brussels (2009) although the actual implementation of the draft law has been subject to a long series of impediments.

As a final remark, one might argue that the sequence between these two ostensibly contrasting developments is not random but reflects the desire and capacity of a powerful government to make tactical and situationally adaptive adjustments mainly in domestic and, to a secondary extent, foreign politics.

The long-term sustainability of this policymaking pattern is conditional upon: (a) the competence of the other political forces to project a drastic alternative to the predominant SNS; (b) the gradual emergence of civic and extra-parliamentary actors with the potential to contest the prospective ‘Orbánization’ of Serbian politics.

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